In early 2003, Elyse Sewell was a relatively anonymous 20-year-old research assistant at a biology lab. She aspired to attend medical school, having recently graduated magna cum laude from the University of New Mexico with a double major in Spanish and biology.
Instead, Sewell found herself in Hollywood starring in the debut season of the reality TV show "America's Next Top Model." Her 5-foot-10, 114-pound body was a perfect fit for the competition; Sewell effortlessly advanced to be one of the final three contestants competing for a $100,000 modeling contract from Revlon.
Then, unprovoked, show host Tyra Banks ushered Sewell off "America's Next Top Model" with a jaw-dropping dig.
"Elyse, your look is very strong for the fashion world — for the hard-core, die-hard fashion world," said Banks, herself a supermodel. "I admire your intelligence — I think you are so smart. But one thing with that intelligence is it can intimidate people. And there's a way to use that intelligence in a way that doesn't feel like you're maybe putting down other people or sounding derogatory."
Translation: while you look anorexic enough to work as a model, there's really no place on my reality TV show for an intelligent and self-assured woman.
As media critic and journalist Jennifer Pozner watched this scene unfold on TV in the summer of 2003, it set her mind racing. What would girls watching the show take away from the comments — that a mind is a terrible thing to use?
By that time, a couple years had already passed since Pozner founded Women in Media & News to increase awareness about women's portrayal in media. In 2010 she also wrote a book, "Reality Bites Back: the Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV," that examines the societal implications of reality TV and offers practical tips for improving media literacy.
"I kept noticing more and more deeply problematic, regressive ideologies packaged on reality TV as if they were a reflection of just who we happen to be as Americans today," she said.
Pozner's perspective is increasingly relevant in light of the fact that millions of Americans are watching reality TV each day. Consider, for example, that a typical episode of MTV's "Jersey Shore" — the most-watched reality TV show for children age 12-17 during the 2011 television season — attracts about 5 million viewers. Additionally, in recent weeks the Fox franchise "American Idol" attracted a combined 34 million viewers for a pair of shows on back-to-back weeknights.
New research indicates that a growing cadre of this reality programming is especially detrimental to girls because of what the Parents Television Council, a non-partisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment, calls "a disturbingly unrealistic portrayal of 'reality' with harsh, demeaning, degrading and sexualized dialogue." For example, according to the Girl Scout Research Institute, girls age 11-17 who regularly watch reality TV are much more inclined than reality TV non-watchers to agree with statements like "Gossiping is a normal part of a relationship between girls" and "Being mean earns you more respect than being nice."
Because reality TV really started gaining a major cultural foothold in 2002, it follows that the girls who are now teenagers have never known a media landscape that didn't prominently feature reality TV.
"It doesn't surprise me that preteens and teenagers wouldn't be overly critical about this genre," Pozner explained. "They have grown up with TV that tells them that this is reflecting real people and real life, without telling them that this is a highly edited, manipulated surreality that only seeks out people who can be turned into caricatures."
And yet, despite the potential pitfalls reality TV poses younger viewers, effective strategies exist for parents to shield their teens from the most unsavory content today and, in the long run, prepare those impressionable minds to become tomorrow's savvy and informed consumers of media.
An indelible impact
Last year the Parents Television Council set out to answer a question: "What messages are being communicated to young viewers through the lens and language of reality television?"
Knowing that MTV has the four most popular reality TV shows for ages 12-17 — "Jersey Shore," "Real World," "Teen Mom 2" and "16 and Pregnant" — Parents Television Council commissioned an independent content analysis of the language on the four MTV reality shows. The results of that analysis provided the framework for its study "Reality on MTV: Gender Portrayals on MTV Reality Programming," published in December.
The study particularly distilled some eye-opening results about the portrayal of women in the MTV reality shows. For example, the major findings included the following: "Only 24 percent of what females said about themselves was positive" and "Overall, women were more disparaging than men when speaking of themselves or someone of their own gender."
Although Melissa Henson, Parents Television Council's director of communications and public education, played an integral role in mapping out which issues the study would cover, some of the findings surprised even her.
"I think we were all surprised to see so much of all the negative, belittling language directed at women coming from other women," Henson said. "It communicates the idea to girls that you can have no true girlfriends because your only goal in life is to find a man, and therefore every other woman is a potential love rival and therefore you can have no true female friendships."
The Parents Television Council study validated and buttressed the results of the Girl Scouts Research Institute's survey from earlier in 2011, "Real to Me: Girls and Reality TV," based on 1,141 interviews of girls age 11-17.
The Girl Scout survey assigned respondents to one of three categories — regular reality TV viewers (47 percent), those who watch reality TV sometimes (30 percent) and those who rarely/never watch reality TV (23 percent) — and then contrasted the responses of regular reality TV viewers against the respondents who rarely/never (watch) reality TV.
Girl Scout Research Institute concluded, "Of girls surveyed, regular reality TV viewers differ dramatically from their non-viewing peers in their expectations of peer relationships, their overall self-image, and their understanding of how the world works."
By way of illustration, 49 percent of the girls who regularly view reality TV said they're happier when they have a boyfriend or are dating someone — while only 28 percent of the non-viewing girls responded similarly.
Media critic Pozner cites the dearth of functional media literacy among today's youth as a primary catalyst leading to passive media consumption, a state of mind that allows reality TV and television advertising to gain an almost impervious foothold in the worldview of teenage girls.
"We just don't teach (enough) media literacy," Pozner said. "Media companies want us to engage with media in a passive way because that passivity is really key to a mindset that fosters consumption. ... We can't be passive when we watch television, because that's when the advertising messages and the ideological messages sneak in under our defenses."
Strategies for parents
As undesirable as some of the reality TV content may be, experts offer a multitude of strategies for parents to help their teens make wise choices about consuming and internalizing media.
Parents Television Council's Henson advises practical measures such as cutting the cord on all MTV programming ("there's nothing redemptive about it," she said) and removing televisions from bedrooms.
"Watch with your kids whenever possible," Henson said. "That way if they're exposed to (negative) messages in the shows that they're watching, at least you're there to provide a counterbalance. ... You can explain to them that what they're seeing is not true reality, but a manipulated reality."
In conjunction with its "Real to Me" survey results, the Girl Scout Research Council published a "Tips for Parents" primer. General topical categories in the tip sheet include things like encouraging your daughter to look beyond the mirror ("Compliment her on her talents and praise her for her values or willingness to try new things. Encourage her to pursue interests that are not based on improving her looks"), and creating alternatives for the entire family ("You can even think about ways you can use what you see on TV to get the family interested in other things. For instance: Try out a recipe seen on a cooking program").
Pozner is quick to point out that instilling teens with enough media literacy to make sense of reality TV will yield benefits that extend decades into the future and include all forms of media they'll consume throughout their lives.
"The first step to becoming active media consumers is to be really critical — and that doesn't mean being negative," Pozner said. "That means asking questions (to) break the cycle of taking in images and then changing our consumer behavior or our ideological outlook without even realizing that we're doing it in response to media. ...
"I get mail all the time from teenagers and young adults saying that they have changed their (reality TV) viewership habits very thoroughly," Pozner said. "Some have said that they've stopped watching, but many of them said it's not that they stopped watching but that they just have the tools they need to deconstruct what is being sold to them and to think more critically about the media they engage with."
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